Wet Prairie Dress Contest

I keep thinking that we should really get a subscription to National Geographic. My daughter, who is 6, has a great love of the natural world and everything scientific and historical. In the go-to stack of books next to her bed are volumes on Darwin, early education in America and the Harvard Home Medical Guide. Besides, NG is just one of those things that any American household should have—like a great metal bucket for dog-washing or drink-chilling, a heating pad, and bungee cords. It’s just basic equipment.

I checked out a copy recently. The cover story was on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), which, as by now probably everyone in America knows, is a “radical” polygamous offshoot of the LDS, the regular Mormons. They even have their own HBO show (with the great Chloe Sevigny), which I had to stop watching because it makes me feel bad. Polygamy is just yuck-inducing to me, like coprophagy or child prostitution. But I proceed into the issue anyway, since I’m looking for a subscription card.

I’m immediately sorry. There it is: the old coot in a cowboy hat, with his wives and shitloads of descendants. This particular fellow has 5 wives, 46 children and 239 grandchildren. “I’ve had a blessed life,” he says. “I wouldn’t trade places with anyone.” Sure he has: he’s the king of his own little mini-cult, which he calls a “family.”

We’ve all seen these images: Women with poufy-on-top, braided-on-the-bottom hairdos and ill-fitting pastel polyester “prairie” dresses; men looking relatively “normal” in jeans and Oxford-type shirts. These women get old fast, due to the strains of childbearing and the physical labor they do on the ranch. The worst photo of all, the one that just makes my stomach hurt with despair, is the double-page spread of five teenage girls in a pond. They are wearing baggy prairie dresses in the water. One of the girls is quoted as saying, “It can get kind of cold.” One girl is standing on her sister’s shoulders reaching for a cable trolley, out of frame, and two of them are supporting her. Are two or more of them going to have to marry the same man someday, and have their children be half-siblings/cousins? Are these girls interrelated already?

I was so involved with the drama of the sisters that it took me a while to notice, on the left, the blurry figure of one of these coots, paunchy and behatted, taking their picture: their dad. “We do everything together,” he says in the caption. And I imagine that he’ll use this picture when he and the “elder” sit down and work out who will marry who. Since they’re wet, one can get a much better look at what are winkingly called “assets” in mainstream publications. No skin is on display, but this picture is pure pornography, anyway. But whose pornography is it?

NG has always been known for its spreads of topless “native” women and their use by young boys. Now we get wet prairie dress action, right here in the USA. I wonder how I am meant to feel when I look at this. Good for me! I don’t have to wear garb and live in a compound! Aren’t I fortunate? Or: Dear me, those girls could use a makeover, stat! Or: This is what happens when you’re not educated properly (smug smug!). Or even: this scares me, because I have a deep fear of having to wear garb and pump out babies against my will, yet here it is, happening right in my country. What if the fundie whatevers take over? Is this article a form of intimidation?

Mostly, I’m just wondering, How do they get away with it? These girls are livestock who will be controlled from cradle to grave by some asshole who calls himself a prophet, who will decide to whom they will be married. Or if they will be “reassigned” to another man. They’ll have child after child and toil on the land, all to benefit the “priesthood.” And as long the men keep their cocks out of the underage girls, it’s all legally kosher, since they only get officially married once. Apparently we must like this sort of thing in America, even as we point fingers at Islamic states for controlling and garbing women. We admire “Western” dicks like J.R. Ewing, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. We love big boss men. Look at the long and celebrated career of revolting old coot Hugh Hefner, pussy rancher par excellence, who, for some reason, gets pass after pass in the mainstream media, who present his lifelong exploitation of women as “cool” and “sexy.”

I would not want to have to explain this article to my daughter. She might even think this looks fun: they get to wear pink dresses and all live together. And look: haying! It might strike her as old-fashioned and charming. Then I’d have to go into the idea of polygamy, and she’d probably wonder if this is historical? No, it’s happening now. “In some other country, far away?” No, right here in America. I don’t know why. Old men in cowboy hats can get away with a lot in the USA, it seems, even as their misdeeds are covered—celebrated—even in the unlikeliest of places as seemingly just another weird bit of “Americana.” As a possible pussy ranchee, I beg to differ. NG, I think I’ll pass on that subscription after all.

Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.